I am on the shore of the Mississippi River. I can’t see into the water in this light. I can’t see the bottom of the river, or much more than the movement of the surface and the reflection of sky bright upon the ripples and waves.
I know something of this body of water, its power for life and destruction, its broadness and strength — but I’ve never before encountered these particular droplets joining together into the one mass that flows in front of me. It is at once so familiar and completely new.
I’ve never traveled to the source of this mighty stream nor to its end. I only know a slice of this water. I’ve crossed this river hundreds of times, but only a section, really — the bridges between the Twin Cities and Dubuque. This region — often called the Upper Mississippi Valley — feels most like home to me, compared to any other place I have been.
The presence of this stream during different eras of my life has convinced me I know this river well, has put me into relationship with it, has established an affection for it within me. Only reluctantly, awkwardly, can I admit that…
Praying with Fr. James’ Martin SJ’s Examen app recently, I heard the words, “Lent is drawing to a close. For Christians, that means not only is there some anticipation for the celebration of Easter, but also some inevitable disappointment about your Lenten spiritual practices …”
The words froze me still. And completely validated my experience. Are you saying, prayer podcast creators, that everyone else is just as awful at fasting as I am? Are you telling me no one succeeds in the spiritual life, that none of us are actually excellent at being disciplined?
My mind wandered into the pit of questions, momentarily distracting me from praying the Examen. Why do we work so hard to grow closer to God, to journey on the path of holiness, if we know that we will stumble? Why do we remain dedicated through the trials, even if our efforts become floppy and we mess up so much? Could the trick of Lent actually be that it doesn’t really matter what penance we do, but why we do it?
What if the actual point of Lenten penance is that it teaches us our desperate need for God?
I’ve been here before, much more in touch with the darkness inside of me at the end of Lent. I seem to repeat my patterns every Lenten cycle; I practically write every year about my failure to make it through.
This year, though, I don’t feel like a failure. I feel grateful to have gotten in touch with the Truth: I am a sinner, a woman who must be fully rely on God. Only with God’s grace am I able to offer my broken, half-hearted self and allow God to make it into something beautiful –something that can be used for God’s purposes.
I can have faith in God’s presence, God’s eagerness to help me grow and recover, again and again, from the darkness in me. I can have faith that God will find a way to use my weak and broken self, and make me more wholly into a woman made for God’s purposes. I learned a new Bible verse at the start of Lent, one that has been a comfort to carry me through: Trust in God’s faithful love forever. (Psalm 52:10)
Even when I fail, God remains faithful. This is what I can trust in, believe in, and rely on.
So, yes, it is inevitable that I stumble and fail, that I become disappointed with myself and my imperfections. But, this isn’t all bad. Each time I become disappointed in my efforts, I see the truth of who I am, I come to know the darkness within me. This causes me to turn to God, to know the power of God’s grace and faithfulness again and again, to open space for God to remake me, which God never seems to grow tired of doing.
“It [grace] strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.”
~ Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted”
You have to be pretty naive to be a Christian in today’s world.
This thought strikes me frequently and no more so than during the season of Lent. Lent is that season especially dedicated to penance and spiritual self-renewal and every year I treat my Lenten penances as a sort of Catholic version of New Year’s resolutions. This is the year that I am going to finally rid myself of that troublesome vice. This is the year I am going to improve myself beyond that pattern of sinful thought. This is the 40 days in which I will finally mortify my flesh sufficiently and begin living a saintly life.
And while Lent has undoubtedly been good for my soul, it so often falls short of my expectations. Most of my pet sins remain. Most of my largest spiritual struggles are still exactly that, entrenched in my soul as they always have been. This year my self-renunciation is aimed at a spiritual trouble spot that I have been attempting to reform for years. For years.
I am naive to think that this Lent will be any different, any better. It is naive to think that, after falling 70 times seven times, this will be the time I get up and stay up.
Our society is faring no better than I am in its battle against its demons. The problems that have always plagued us plague us still. Columbine was 18 years ago and yet more children than ever are victims of a violence that back then was unthinkable, but now habitual. The sirens about the terrors of climate change have been sounding my entire life; now they are here, with Cape Town set to run out of water in mere months. Dorothy Day died in 1980, and yet her country is more inequitable and more violent than when she departed from it. Yet so many people — faithful people, and people of good will — continue to work and march and witness against injustice all the same.
We are naive to think that we can fix our broken world. It is naive to think that, after failing to heed the warning signs and to learn from the pain for so long, that now is the time things will change.
But here I should confess that I do not consider naiveté a bad quality, especially when it is not something we possess without realizing it but rather something we specifically cultivate. To be naive means to be simple and a little foolish, and it is sometimes simple foolishness that gives us the courage to persevere.
For all the darkness that surrounds us in our lifetimes alone we have seen miracles happen. For all the darkness that fills me I can think of some demons I have beaten, some sins I have shaken.
Naiveté, when chosen, when specifically engendered within ourselves, is the antidote to a cynical word. It means trusting people who are not trustworthy. It means forgiving someone you have already forgiven a multitude of times and believing this will be the last time you will need to. It means thinking they will be better this time. It means thinking you will be better this time.
But this foolish, simple belief is what makes the space, what gives the time for true repentance to occur. Our act of believing translates to endurance in the face of failure, and it is the very thing that helps bring about the conditions for change to be realized.
It takes a lot of telling to make a city know when it is doing wrong. However, that was what I was there for. When it didn’t seem to help, I would go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it would split in two, and I knew it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before together.
When my fellow-workers smiled, I used to remind them of the Israelites that marched seven times around Jericho and blew their horns before the walls fell. “Well, you go ahead and blow yours,” they said; “you have the faith.” And I did, and the walls did fall, though it took nearly twice seven years. But they came down, as the walls of ignorance and indifference must every time, if you blow hard enough and long enough, with faith in your cause and in your fellow-man. It is just a question of endurance. If you keep it up, they can’t.”
~ Jacob A. Riis (1849-1949), photojournalist and social reformer, on his attempts to improve living conditions for the poor in the slums of New York city. (I was introduced to the quote via this illustrated rendition of it.)
When we look at all the realities of our corrupt world, at our corrupt selves, and choose to try again anyway, we are being naive. But in just such instances, when we choose it freely, ‘to be naive’ means the exact same thing as ‘to have hope.’ And unlike the occasional unsuccessful Lenten resolution, hope is something that does not disappoint.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
An old building in disrepair, collapsing toward the ground.
A rusting, defective car, stuck in layers of mud.
The sight of the simplest crack in a sidewalk can still my body, stun my soul.
The colors and textures of a simple, broken branch can inspire poetry.
It may be a bit bizarre, but brokenness really can become a gallery art piece to me.
I am in awe of the beauty of brokenness because I relate to the ordinary being an un-mended mess—a mix of decay and transformation. The objects all around me feel familiar because I have been broken and mended, again and again.
Oftentimes, it seems that brokenness is what helps me to become most in touch with my humanity; I know that this part of my nature doesn’t make me unique. In service and contemplation, I have touched physical and mental wounds in myself and others. I have heard people pour forth the worse of spiritual sorrow, anguish and misery. At times, my own doubts and struggles have been so intense that I felt incapable of doing anything but collapsing, quitting. Don’t we all feel dysfunctional, inoperable and crumbled in certain circumstances, in one way or another?
It seems to me that the season of Lent has much to do with this brokenness. As Holy Week nears and we enter into the most sacred days of the Church year, let us check in. What has happened in our hearts and in our lives as a result of our fasting, praying and penance in the desert? How have these desert days helped us to recognize where we are in need of mending, healing and reconciliation in our lives? How have our eyes been opened to the truth of our interdependence, of how we are made for community, for Christ, for others? How have we been transformed and changed? And what scars can we now bear more courageously?
A few weeks ago, I presented a program at the spirituality center where I minister about this passion of mine, the beauty of brokenness. After shared contemplation, we attempted to convey our reflections through the Japanese craft of kintsugi, which repairs objects with gold in order to highlight and honor the history of the object: the beauty of the cracks.
Here is where I learned about how to experience kintsugi, without becoming an apprentice in Japan.
During the workshop, we considered how we all might be like broken cups within God’s hands as we tried to piece them together—a complex, layered puzzle. Another poem, “The Perfect Cup” by Joyce Rupp, helped foster this reflection.
Honestly, I found it challenging to try kintsugi. My fingers became sticky, gold-spattered messes. I even cut my fingers a little on the broken cup I tried to repair. In the end, though, I really liked what I held in my hands.
In fact, I have decided that what I created is a perfect vessel for light, a beautiful place to burn candles within.
Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” includes the lyrics “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” My experience trying kintsugi and reflecting on my likeness to a broken cup in God’s hands caused a spin on Cohen’s wisdom to emerge.
I believe we all are broken so that God’s light can shine out through our cracks.
By God’s grace, let us be strengthened and transformed so we can see the beauty of our brokenness. With the arrival of Holy Week around the corner, may we be ready for God’s light to beam brightly from us all. May the resurrection energy shine through our cracks, so we can help illumine dimness near and far. Amen!
I love hearing the stories of the early Church, especially as they are proclaimed everyday at Mass during the Easter season. Their adventures, as are found in the Book of Acts, reminds me that the truth and joy that come from Christ’s resurrection has truly established renewal for all creation. We are one. We are free!
The energy and courage found in the early Church can enliven us today. None of us need to be afraid to share our faith. We can let go of our fears to take risks for the reign of God. We can live with strong trust in God and faith — such courage can set all sorts of miracles into motion.
God has graced us with all we need to truly change the world!
Certainly, we don’t need to look too far to see that Christ-centered change is actually very messy. The season of spring — of beauty and life poking out of the mud and muck of what was once dead and dormant — shows us that being courageous with our compassion and witness is far from neat and tidy. The mess of transformation is demanding, active, and fierce.
Parker Palmer’s recent reflection Spring is Mud and Miracle(published online at On Being with Krista Tippet) reminded me of this:
There’s a miracle inside that muddy mess: those fields are a seedbed for rebirth. I love the fact that the word humus, the decayed organic matter that feeds the roots of plants, comes from the same word-root that gives rise to humility. It’s an etymology in which I find forgiveness, blessing, and grace. It reminds me that the humiliating events of life — events that leave “mud on my face” or “make my name mud” — can create the fertile soil that nourishes new growth.
Spring begins tentatively, but it advances with a tenacity that never fails to touch me. The smallest and most tender shoots insist on having their way, pressing up through ground that looked, only a few weeks earlier, as if it would never grow anything again. The crocuses and snowdrops don’t bloom for long. But their mere appearance, however brief, is always a harbinger of hope — and from those small beginnings, hope grows at a geometric rate.
During this Easter season I desire to accept the mess and muck as natural. My humanity is a gift. The muck of life can be thick and heavy, but it really is a sign of hope out of which can spring forth the determination of goodness.
True, it is messy and disturbing to encounter the world, but the muck is a necessary part of the freedom that comes from growth. We can have courage to change. Even though it can be hard to learn the truth, new awareness can crack light into my soul. Yes, service may wear me out but my weakness can open a way for me to get closer to my community. Although reaching out will mean I’ll inevitably encounter the hurting parts of our world that I’d rather hide from: witnessing as a healer, lover, server and friend may mean that I will end up bruised and broken. And changed.
In the midst of the muddy mess, I will choose to be encouraged. It is only through decay that new life can come. It is only through the stink, the goo, the pain of life that transformations will emerge. I know I am on the right path and really walking with The Way if I am breaking through barriers and getting hurt outside my comfort zone. This is the life of abundance, life to the fullest, the real Gospel way. The mud means I am moving in the right direction, serving and loving in union with Christ.
Yes, let us move out, singing songs of service and love, not afraid of the inevitable mess and muck, because it is part of transformation! Pope Francis encourages us:
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” – Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, #49)
And, Alex Street’s song Beautiful Mess can be our anthem as we go:
Ready or not, Lent is here and it is time to get into it—time to get into the spirit of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to experience great conversion during this sacred season.
It’s time to make some changes.
On this Ash Wednesday we are marked with signs of Truth: all of us are sinners, all of us need to repent, all of us have humanity in common. The fact that we came from dirt and shall return to dirt is one of the great equalizers among us.
Because we are not God we all are imperfect, and must work together for growth and development. No matter which Lenten practices we commit to today, let’s remember it takes a lot work—two months on average—to really change our habits.
The ashes say it: Lent is a time to remember how connected, how communal we’re designed to be. As we change and become better together, let us remain patient—let us be compassionate when changes come tough.
Together, then, changed by our Lenten practices and the grace of God, let us unite as one and return to God with all that we are.
In honor of Father’s Day, I decided to ask my dad, Kevin Walsh, a few questions.
Considering that many of us do not know our fathers, I am very blessed to have a very loving, supportive and caring father. My dad is a deep thinker, knowledgeable, wise, prayerful and at times, very jovial. He also has a great sense of humor. I didn’t give him any warning that I was going to do this or give him much time to think about the questions, so I am very grateful he agreed. Still, he had a disclaimer. He said, “Being that I have a short-sleeved shirt on, this is all very off-the-cuff.”
What is one of the best things about being a dad?
Watching my children grow from infants, from children, to young adults and into adulthood and moving on in their lives. Helping you interpret different things going on in your lives and in your environment and supporting you through different milestones. Teaching you kids to go with the flow but responding when you need to for the sake of justice, for the sake of your own self-esteem and what you have learned is right.
In other words, to quote something I’ve heard from others, the best thing is “to give my children roots and wings.” I tried to give the roots of Christianity and roots of understanding your heritage. Roots in a disciplined and ordered life. Roots so you know that we’re here on earth to make a difference—which kind of fits with the Christianity thing, and living simply and simply living.
Those are a hodgepodge of things. Some are roots. Some are wings. Some are both roots and wings.
What is one of the hardest things about being a dad?
Watching my children suffer; watching them struggle and knowing I am powerless over their struggle. Knowing their struggle is their struggle and they need to figure it out. I’ve taught my children how to fish and now they need to put their hook in the water and they have to fish.
The hardest thing was when you got injured when you had your accident and fell off the cliff.
[Note from Sister Julia: My dad is referring to an accident I had in the summer of 2007 that left me in critical condition for several days. I have not (yet) written publicly about the experience, but I once told the story in front of a live audience during a special event with The Moth.]
Was that really the hardest moment in all your years of being a dad and for all four of us kids, Dad?
Yes, most recently at least. Also when Hans [my brother] was born and was having seizures, that was awful also.
Watching a person suffer and knowing you’re helpless and powerless over that situation is awful—when that person is your child and you are a parent it’s really awful, for as a parent you want to be a nurturer.
But that’s not to say that the pain and suffering wasn’t formative. I grew tremendously because of that experience both emotionally and spiritually. The growth I had is unfathomable.
How has being a dad changed you as a person?
It’s made me more human in that I have experienced and have learned how to love like I never loved before.
It’s made me understand the same responsibilities that God has for his creation. So it has changed me and made a co-creator with God and given me responsibility to take care of creation and to realize the Creator’s work is never done. There’s always newness and renewal coming in the relationship between the Father and the children—as well as potential for renewal between me and my children.
Recently, I asked my students what comes to mind when they hear the phrase “Kingdom of God.” This (low-quality) photo summarizes the lively classroom discussion that occurred that day.
As I told my students, I intentionally recorded all their comments on the board in a very messy fashion because I want them to see that the Kingdom of God is not orderly and predictable. In fact, living in the Kingdom of God that Jesus established means that we are living in the midst of beautiful chaos.
Through the incarnation Christ empowered us build the Kingdom of God. And, if we’re doing the work of building the Kingdom of God, we’re people who are moving into the chaos, out of our comfort zones, and toward the margins of society.
The chaos, the messiness of building the Kingdom of God is the stuff of beautiful chaos. It is also the stuff of personal and social conversion. During this Lenten season, our actions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving challenge us to confront the uncomfortable corners in ourselves that are in need of God’s loving attention. As we let go of attachments and rearrange a bit of our living, an ugly seeming image of ourselves can emerge. We look at ourselves and see an inner chaos; we feel disturbed by truth. We need to grow, to be different, to convert more fully into who God made us to be.
I recently heard another Sister speak about how the chaos of a crisis gives us a chance to make a choice, frequently providing just the impetus we need to change. She connected these vital moments that invite our personal growth to the designs in God’s creation. When we study nature, she mentioned, we can recognize that the next evolutionary stage erupts when there is crisis and a need for change to occur.
I feel as if I am on this edge. The chaos of my weakness swirls about me, challenging me to make choices. I started Lent two weeks ago with a bit of my typical overambitious and idealistic intentions. And then I quickly started failing. Days would get busy and I would forget that about the extra tasks I wanted to do, like writing a card to someone I love each day. Now I am challenged to ask myself difficult questions, like why am unrealistic with myself? And, am I making enough time for others? I am challenged to move to more self-awareness and allowed to make another choice.
Each of us dance with questions and disturbances in the chaos of God’s Kingdom. We are allowed to make choices that allow for greater personal growth. We are invited to encounter the chaos that is the lives of others.
Then together–as a community–we change the structures, systems and inner oppression that don’t allow God’s Kingdom to fully come into the here and now. We forgive. We heal. We teach. We love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We love God with all that we are. Then, the peace, justice and love that is the Kingdom of God can be known in this time now.
“How can you be a nun? You’re the most boy-crazy girl I know!”
My good friend first jokingly teased me with this question when we were both still teenagers. I was in the earliest stages of my discernment at the time, and I couldn’t give her a good answer to her question.
That was nearly two decades ago. I like to think that I’ve matured a lot since I was a boy-crazy teenager, and that I’ve come to understand how the complex parts of my personality can all enrich my relationship with God. Over the years, I have become convinced that God used my teenaged feelings to steer me toward my vocation. In fact, being “boy-crazy” actually influenced my first experience of “call” to the Catholic Sisterhood.
I was a teen who deeply desired to please God. I remember praying for guidance regarding my attraction to a certain boy while alone in my bedroom one night. As I prayed, I heard a very intense answer….